I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley in the late '50s and '60s. I went to a segregated elementary school until the seventh grade and was so insulated that I didn't think much about it. While in those elementary years I learned that during the Civil War, the South had a noble cause. I was also taught that, if not for the overwhelming economic and material advantages, the South would have won because of their superior generals and the courage of the men who fought for Virginia and uttered the "rebel yell." I even had a hat that proclaimed, "The South will rise again."
Soon after schools were desegregated I entered Turner Ashby High School. There I became a proud Knight and thought we probably had one of the best high schools in the state. I didn't know much about the school's namesake except that he fought in the Civil War, died near Harrisonburg and looked good on a horse. I had little understanding of how that name might be perceived by the students of color who attended the school with me.
Over the years, I became more aware of how such symbols like the Confederate flag, monuments honoring the "lost cause" and high schools like R.E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Turner Ashby might be offensive to folks who did not grow up with all the privileges I enjoyed. This knowledge led me to research and find that, not only did Turner Ashby fight to preserve slavery, but in other aspects of his life he was not a particularly honorable man.
Like many people killed in battle, myths grew up around him. His valor and battle skills were exalted and his blemishes were overlooked. It was true that he was a gifted horseman and seemed to have an abundance of courage. However, his negative qualities tend to far outweigh any positive attributes. Before the war he ran a business that depended on slave labor. He took at least one trip North to hunt down escaped slaves that once belonged to his sister. Furthermore, he was chosen to lead a vigilante committee that endorsed slavery, threatened an abolitionist named John Underwood and forced him to leave his home. Ashby threatened Underwood and wrote he could not guarantee his safety if he remained in the state. Even during the war, Stonewall Jackson found him hard to work with and tried to have him demoted.
The strongest argument to change the name of the high school is that it makes people of color feel disrespected and perhaps unsafe each time they enter the doors or carry the Knight symbol on their chest in extracurricular activities. However, I am also aware of the arguments about Southern heritage and honoring ancestors. I have a question for those that hold this point of view. Is Turner Ashby the kind of person we want our children to emulate and hold up with honor?
Lawrence Miller lives in Bridgewater.